The Friday Poem ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman

It’s been a difficult time for those who go to work as teachers in America. Many are on strike, not just for a living wage, but for supplies and improvements to the physical spaces that foster learning. Many have faced threats and continue to teach in the aftermath of mass shootings.

Pundits are fond of quoting Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The Friday Poem this week is ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman reminds us that we have always struggled with the value of education in our society.

The poem was written three years after the New Jersey State Legislature passed ‘An Act to Make Free the Public Schools of the State’, providing free access to public schools “to all persons over five and under eighteen years of age.”

In 1874 poet  was recovering from a stroke at his brother’s home in Camden, N.J. At a public school dedication in early November he challenged his fellow citizens of the post-Civil War era:

“And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?

To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.”

An Old Man’s Thought of School

An old man’s thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.

Now only do I know you.
O fair auroral skies – O morning dew upon the grass!

And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping, like a fleet of ships, immortal ships!
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the Soul’s voyage.

Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?

Ah! more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais’d his warning cry, “Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these
dead floors, windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all—the church is living, ever living souls.”)

And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
This Union multiform, with all its dazzling hopes and terrible fears?
Look deeper, nearer, earlier far—provide ahead—counsel in time;
Not to your verdicts of election days—not to your voters look,
To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.

Walt Whitman   New York Daily Graphic, November 3, 1874

“Recited personally by the author Saturday afternoon, October 31, at the inauguration of the fine new Cooper Public School, Camden, New Jersey.”

Photo: Cooper Public School, Camden, N.J. circa 1910

 

The Friday Poem ‘After Work’ by John Maloney

It’s Friday and the poem selected to start off this weekend is ‘After Work’ by stonemason and poet John Maloney.

There’s a line of demarcation, even in the 24/7 workplace, where we cross over from the identity we carry @work to perhaps the more authentic persona of how we see ourselves. It’s that transition space in a car stuck in LA on the 405, hanging tight on the subway in NYC or driving a pickup on the backroads of Tennessee. “No one can take away the contentment of the first few miles.”

After Work

They’re heading home with their lights on, dust and wood glue,
yellow dome lights on their metallic long beds: 250s, 2500s—
as much overtime as you want, deadline, dotted line, dazed
through the last few hours, dried primer on their knuckles,
sawdust calf-high on their jeans, scraped boots, the rough
plumbing and electric in, way ahead of the game except for
the check, such a clutter of cans and iced-tea bottles, napkins,
coffee cups, paper plates on the front seat floor with cords
and saws, tired above the eyes, back of the beyond, thirsty.
There’s a parade of them through the two-lane highways,
proudest on their way home, the first turn out of the jobsite,
the first song with the belt off, pure breath of being alone
for now, for now the insight of a full and answerable man.
No one can take away the contentment of the first few miles
and they know they can’t describe it, the black and purple sky.

The Friday Poem ‘The Three Goals’ by David Budbill

We need poets to convert obfuscation into clarity: to communicate, not “confuse, bewilder or stupefy”. The Friday Poem this week, ‘The Three Goals’ by David Budbill does just that.

Author, poet, playwright and musician David Budbill “took a workman’s attitude toward art and despised pretension. Asked about the sources of his inspiration, he said: “It comes from out of nowhere, from my imagination, from the voices I hear, from somewhere. In short, I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t care.”

The Three Goals

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
simultaneously.
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

David Budbill   ‘Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse’   2012

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Photo credit: Peter Miller

‘From the Somme’ a poem by Leslie Coulson

The Friday Poem this week is ‘From the Somme’, by journalist, poet and soldier of the first world war, Leslie Coulson. The poem was included in a collection of poetry, ‘first world war  poems’, published in 2014.

“Leslie Coulson fought in Malta, Egypt and Gallipoli, where he was wounded. He recovered in hospital in Egypt, was sent to France and was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme. Shortly before he died, he wrote in a letter, ‘If I should fall do not grieve for me. I shall be one with the wind and the sun and the flowers.'”

In remembrance of the Battle of the Somme, one of the lesser known poets of the great war reflects on the impact of the battle on his worldview. His voice carries through the century to speak to all who are transformed by tragedy.

From the Somme

In other days I sang of simple things,
Of summer dawn, and summer noon and night,
The dewy grass, the dew-wet fairy rings,
The larks long golden flight.

Deep in the forest I made melody
While squirrels cracked their hazel nuts on high,
Or I would cross the wet sand to the sea
And sing to sea and sky.

When came the silvered silence of the night
I stole to casements over scented lawns,
And softly sang of love and love’s delight
To mute white marble fauns.

Oft in the tavern parlour I would sing
Of morning sun upon the mountain vine,
And, calling for a chorus, sweep the string
In praise of good red wine.

I played with all the toys the gods provide,
I sang my songs and made glad holiday
Now I have cast my broken toys aside
And flung my lute away.

A singer once, I now am fain to weep,
Within my soul I feel strange music swell,
Vast chants of tragedy too deep – too deep
For my poor lips to tell.

Leslie Coulson (1889-1916)  ‘first world war poems’ edited by Jane McMorland Hunter, 2014

‘Today’ a poem by Billy Collins

 

The signs of spring are around us. On Sunday we move the clocks ahead an hour and begin to fill in our NCAA tournament brackets. In the world beyond our workplace windows, nature quietly launches her ‘trickster season’.

“Spring has never been a reliable season. Some years it includes too much summer, some years too much winter, and some years too much of both.”

The Friday Poem this week comes from two time U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, who invites us to “throw open all the windows in the house” and enjoy the perfect spring day.

Today

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

Billy Collins   Poetry Magazine,  April 2000

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“Accessibility is not a word often associated with great poetry. Yet Billy Collins has managed to create a legacy from what he calls being poetically “hospitable.” Preferring lyrical simplicity to abstruse intellectualism, Collins combines humility and depth of perception, undercutting light and digestible topics with dark and at times biting humor.”  (TED 2012)

 

 

‘Perhaps the World Ends Here’ a poem by Joy Harjo

The Friday Poem this week is from Native American Poet, Joy Harjo. In September of this year she received the Wallace Stevens award from the Academy of American Poets.

Chancellor Alicia Ostriker summarized Harjo’s contribution to the canon of American poetry.

“Throughout her extraordinary career as poet, storyteller, musician, memoirist, playwright and activist, Joy Harjo has worked to expand our American language, culture, and soul. A Creek Indian and student of First Nation history, Harjo is rooted simultaneously in the natural world, in earth—especially the landscape of the American southwest— and in the spirit world. Aided by these redemptive forces of nature and spirit, incorporating native traditions of prayer and myth into a powerfully contemporary idiom, her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Joy Harjo   The Woman Who Fell From the Sky  1994